Chapter One: Under Attack
Therese stood in the doorway, twirling a strand of her red hair round and round her index finger. There was only one bed in the center of Hecate’s room. That could be a problem, even though Therese only slept about once a week.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Therese took a step back, knocking her quiver and bow against the cold stone wall.
“It will be fine.” Hecate skipped forward and snatched up Therese’s bag. “You can unpack your things in my closet.” When she spun around toward the back of the room, her black and white hair fanned out around her slim shoulders.
Hecate didn’t look like a witch or a hag or the dozens of other descriptions Therese had found on Google while visiting her family and friends in Colorado a month ago. She was an inch taller than Therese, and, in spite of the white streaks in her hair, she looked young, closer to Hermes’s age, mid-twenties, with a delicate nose and thin lips. Therese knew Hecate was ancient—older than Than—but one thing she’d learned since becoming the goddess of animal companions was that immortal beings aged at different rates from humans and from one another.
“You aren’t what I was expecting,” Therese said with a smile.
“Mortals get me confused with Than’s sister, Melinoe. That’s probably it. Were you expecting someone more terrifying?”
Therese pulled her eyebrows together in confusion. “Do you mean Megaera?”
Hecate’s face broke into a grin. “Those two are nothing alike.” Then, in a somber voice, Hecate added, “I’m not surprised Than never mentioned Melinoe.”
“Well that makes one of us,” Therese said. How could he omit such an important detail? She’d told Than everything about herself and her family. Why wouldn’t he have ever mentioned Melinoe? “Does she live down here, too?”
“She used to, until Hades banished her a few centuries ago. Now she lives on the outskirts of the Underworld in a cave on Cape Matapan.”
“And that is…”
“On the southernmost tip of Greece.” Then Hecate stepped forward. “Where are my manners? Meg will scold me later. Please come on inside. It’s so nice to have company. I get lonely here when Persie moves in with Hades.” Hecate slipped Therese’s bag behind a wooden door, as though she wished to give Therese no opportunity to change her mind. “In the springs and summers on Mount Olympus, Persie and I share rooms with Demeter. Down here, I have a lot of time to myself.”
Therese looked around the chamber for the first time, its dome ceiling high and covered with dancing shadows, cast by the light of the Phlegethon, the river of fire. A stream ran from an upper crevice down a series of rocks and pooled in a six-foot-wide basin before thinning and disappearing behind another smooth boulder.
“That’s where I wash,” Hecate explained. “The spring is fresh and good enough to drink.”
Beside the basin and curled on a pillow was a small animal, a cute brown fur ball Therese had never seen. “Who’s this?”
“Galin, my polecat. This is the time when she likes to sleep.”
“I won’t disturb her, then.”
“My dog is awake and around here somewhere.” Hecate glanced about the room. “Cubie? Where are you?”
A black Doberman pinscher with tall ears and a long tail crawled out from beneath the one big bed.
“There she is.” Hecate reached over and patted the dog on the head. “Were you spying on us?”
“Absolutely,” the dog answered.
Hecate laughed. “Cubie, this is Therese.”
“Pleasure,” the dog said.
“Likewise.” Therese stroked Cubie’s back, wishing Clifford had taken her seriously when she’d announced that she was moving out of Than’s rooms. Instead, he’d given her an unconcerned stare as she had said goodbye and I mean it this time. “I have a dog, too. Maybe you would like to meet him.”
“Is he intelligent?” Cubie asked.
“He’s pretty smart.” As the goddess of animal companions, Therese had met quite a lot of dogs, and she felt positive that Clifford was as smart as any of them.
“But probably not as smart as Cubie,” Hecate said. “She was once the queen of Troy.”
Before Therese could ask why a former queen of Troy was now a dog, the floor trembled beneath their feet, followed by a loud boom.
Therese clutched the wall as Hecate fell back on the bed and shouted, “Ahhh!”
“What was that?” Therese asked when the floor stabilized.
“I don’t know.” Hecate’s voice was frantic. “I can’t get a prayer through to Hades or to Persie.”
Therese tried, too, but sensed no response. Blood pounded in her head as the ground began to quake again. She clutched the locket at her throat and prayed to Athena, but got no answer.
“Will these walls hold?” She glanced up at the ceiling, a host of scenarios playing through her mind. If the walls of the Underworld were to crumble, what would happen to its billions of inhabitants, including the souls of her mom and dad?
“Where are they—Hades and Persephone?” Therese asked.
Hecate winced as another boom sounded throughout the chamber. “Mount Olympus.”
Just then, a crack ran across the ground, up the wall, and through the dome ceiling.
“It’s going to collapse!” Therese shouted.
Small chunks of the ceiling fell on the bed, on the golden table by the hearth, and in the water basin, causing Galin to leap from her pillow and into Hecate’s arms.
“Clifford and Jewels!” Therese cried. “They’re in Than’s rooms.” Her stomach balled into a knot when she imagined them harmed.
“I’ll go with you.” Hecate set Galin down on the bed and spoke to the shivering weasel. “You and Cubie go to Demeter’s winter cabin, and wait for me there. Okay?”
More rocks crumbled down the walls as a series of booms sounded throughout the chamber. The stream, which once ran gently down the wall, shot out, spraying in all directions.
“I’m not leaving you!” Galin returned to her mistress’s arms.
“Nor I!” Cubie declared.
Soaked and trembling, the four of them rushed down the winding path along the Phlegethon, dodging the falling rocks. Cracks chased them all across the walls, and loudbooms shuddered through the air. Therese was afraid to pray to Than, worried he’d god travel straight into danger. Even in her limited experience, she knew that if you arrived at a point occupied by solid mass, such as a large boulder, your body composition would momentarily meld with it. She’d not heard of gods temporarily dying from the mishap, but it was painful as you extricated yourself from the object and put yourself back together. She’d discovered this problem when she once arrived in a brick wall. It had taken over an hour to recover, and the pain had been excruciating.
She found Clifford barking nervously by the hearth. “Come on, boy! We’ve got to get Stormy!”
Therese carried Jewels like a football in the crook of one arm as the group scurried down the narrow passageways toward the stables. She wondered if Than would be angry with her for not calling to him right away. He was already angry with her, and she didn’t want to put another rift between them.
As they passed by the intersection of the Lethe and the Styx, deities cried out, and, although Therese and Hecate slowed down and searched the waters, they could not find the source of the cries. Cubie said she’d stay behind and keep searching.
When Therese rounded a corner, a colony of bats whirred up from a crevice below and fluttered past them, and then out climbed Tizzie, up from Tartarus with blood dripping down one arm.
“What is happening?” Tizzie demanded, her black serpentine curls covered in dust.
“We don’t know,” Therese replied.
“Well that’s just great,” Tizzie said, waving her hands. “The souls are in chaos. And if the pit ruptures, the Titans will be unleashed. Where the devil is my father?”
“Mount Olympus,” Hecate said, dodging a falling rock that landed with a clack beside her.
Sensing Stormy’s danger, Therese sent a prayer to Tizzie as she hustled toward the stables, explaining why she was on the run instead of god traveling to the gate.
I’ll meet you at Cerberus, Therese added.
The three judges floated by her in their long robes headed in the opposite direction, toward the gate. Perhaps their demigod status kept them from god travel, she thought. Hecate was no longer behind her as Therese reached the stables with Clifford and Jewels. When she opened the wooden door, she found the walls had completely collapsed, and Stormy lay on his side crushed beneath the rubble with blood pouring from his flanks.
Among the weeping women and children, Than pulled the soul of the Chinese man from the limp body on the bed. As sorry as he felt for those left behind, Than’s own troubles distracted him beyond measure. He tried to put the doubts out of his mind, but with no success. They appeared, against his will: Therese had used him so she could become a god. She had never loved him as he loved her. The death of her parents, and so many after, had motivated her to find a way around her own mortality.
He ushered the soul across the heavens and then down through the deep chasm, where hundreds of his disintegrated selves led other souls from different parts of the world. Like a great machine—the greatest conveyor belt imaginable—he swept along, an automatic cog in the wheel of life. And there below him on his raft, long pole in hand, was his fellow cog, Charon, ready to carry the souls to their judgment.
For centuries, he’d done this same work, longing for a change, and now that he’d finally found his wish, he was only more miserable.
Therese never meant to marry him. He’d been a fool.
In the weeks since she moved in, her eighteenth birthday and their wedding date had come and gone. Therese had said she wasn’t ready, postponing their marriage indefinitely. When he asked her why, she had repeated, “I’m not ready.”
Than was a patient god. Although disappointed, he could wait for as many years as Therese needed. But it wasn’t her spoken objection that had his stomach in knots and his emotions unstable; it was the physical distance she put between them of late that made him shiver and regret the day he’d met her.
How could the same touch of his hands on her that had once made her smile and cling to him cause her to avert her eyes and pull away? If she once loved him, it was clear she did no longer.
Aphrodite had warned him this might happen.
As he neared Charon, he noticed Cerberus whining, and beside him stood his sister Tizzie. Then he saw a great explosion beyond the gates, and red and orange sparks flew through the sky. Rocks tumbled down the walls of the chasm, like the beginning of an avalanche. In all the centuries Than had lived in the Underworld, he’d never witnessed anything like this before.
“Charon,” Than said. “What’s happening?”
“I believe the Underworld is under attack,” the old man replied in his husky, gravelly voice.
At that moment, Than sensed Stormy’s death in the stables, and he disintegrated and dispatched where he found Therese, with Jewels clutched to her chest and Clifford barking hysterically at the crushed body that belonged to Stormy.
“What in the hell is going on?” Than asked.
“I don’t know! We can’t reach your parents. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Before Than could respond, a thick black boulder loosened from the ceiling and landed squarely on Therese’s head, knocking her and the tortoise to the floor. The tortoise slid across the ground, spinning on its back, and stopped several feet away, safe from harm, but Than heard the crunch and thud of Therese’s body beneath the weight of the massive rock. His heart stopped beating as he held his breath and stared in shock.
“Father!” he shouted into the falling debris surrounding him. He felt like a helpless, desperate child. “Father!”
Hypnos lifted the saddle onto the beast and tightened the tack. He still wasn’t used to the sharp smell of hay and feces, stirred about by the brushing by humans of the other beasts surrounding him. It wasn’t a bad smell, really. Having spent most of his life in the Dreamworld, where sensory perceptions were dulled by a degree of separation between the mind and the body, he rather liked the pungent assault on all of his senses, not just the olfactory ones. Besides, his eyes were continually pleased by the prettiest girl he’d ever seen who was now bent over in front of him. The corners of his mouth twitched, and he fought the urge to slap her on the rump. Instead, he patted Hershey, the horse in his charge, and told him what a good boy he was, as he’d often heard the other humans say to their beasts.
Hip was grateful to the old Holt woman for taking him on as a horse handler yesterday when he’d shown up, unannounced. He’d finally won his father’s permission to follow in Than’s footsteps to journey to the Upperworld as a mortal in a pursuit of a queen. Whether Hip would actually marry her was a different story. Hip realized that his brother had the right idea in finding a way to spend time in the Upperworld, and Hip wanted his turn. All these years of visiting girls in the Dreamworld didn’t compare to the feeling of being in the physical presence of one.
Centuries ago, he’d come close to marrying one of Aphrodite’s youngest Graces, Pasithea, but she overwhelmed him with her neediness, and he finally broke off their relationship. Since then, he’d been content playing with mortals in their dreams, but his brother’s recent love affair, he had to admit, had made him jealous.
Hip hoped to soon have a taste of Jen’s pretty lips. Maybe he’d get lucky and taste all of her.
Mrs. Holt looked at him now from behind the big stallion they called The General.
“You’re as handy as your brother,” Mrs. Holt said. “Too bad he couldn’t come with you.”
Jen stood up and brushed her mare’s mane. “He’s too busy with the wedding plans, I bet.”
Hip couldn’t stop the smile from crossing his face every time Jen looked at him through narrowed eyes. She recognized him, he was sure of it, but she was having trouble admitting to herself that she knew him from her dreams.
“I doubt that,” Hip said with a shrug.
Jen whipped around to face him with her hands on her hips, her pretty mouth making a perfect “O.” Then she said, “He better not make her do everything by herself. Damn your brother if he does.”
This tickled Hip beyond control, and he couldn’t stop himself from busting out laughing. What mortal had the gall to damn the god of death? Of course, this girl had no idea what she was saying.
“Language,” Mrs. Holt said from the back of the barn.
Jen ignored her mother. “What’s so funny?’ She moved closer, her brown eyes glaring up at Hip from beneath her pretty blonde bangs and equally blond lashes. “Don’t tell me you’re a chauvinistic pig.”
“Jen!” Mrs. Holt scolded from behind her beast. “Don’t talk to Hip like that.”
Jen kept her eyes blazing on Hip, but spoke to her mother. “I have the right to talk like that to anyone who laughs at me, Mama.”
“My apologies,” Hip said, reining in his chuckles. “But you misunderstood. Than’s not busy with the wedding because, last I heard, Therese called it off.”
Jen’s mouth dropped open. Then, after staring incredulously at Hip for an uncomfortable amount of time, she threw her hands up in the air and presented him with a smile he hadn’t earned. “Allelujah, praise the Lord! It’s about time she came to her senses.”
Was she praising him? Had he become her lord? Somehow he doubted it, but he was amused by how quickly Jen’s demeanor changed from attack mode. She looked about to hug him. He liked being the bearer of good news.
“When’s she coming home?” Jen asked him.
Hip shook his head. “I don’t think she is. I, I…” He wished he’d kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t his job to explain why a goddess couldn’t live among her mortal friends and family.
Jen stepped between the horses and planted her feet inches from his. He wanted to reach out and touch her to see if she felt as good as she did in the Dreamworld. Her eyes narrowed and then widened, and for a moment, he thought she had figured out who he was. But then she said, “Don’t tell me she’s going to stay in Texas.”
“Why would she…” Hip stopped himself. “Maybe you should talk to her yourself.” He turned his back to her and continued to brush the horse. This conversation was over. He’d never had to make explanations to mortals, and he wasn’t about to start doing it now.
But Jen moved close behind him, so close, he could feel the heat from her body. He could smell her sweat and something else. Something fruity and sweet.
“I can’t get a hold of her,” Jen said in a desperate voice. “She hasn’t returned any of my texts and calls in over a month. I don’t know if she has her new email yet. She’s not on Facebook anymore, or Instagram. Nothing. It’s like she’s disappeared off the face of the earth.”
She has, he wanted to say. That’s exactly what’s happened. But, of course, he wouldn’t.
Jen put her hand on his shoulder and he felt every part of him come to attention.
“Please,” she said softly. “Please help me get in touch with her.”
He turned and saw tears welling in her eyes. “I’ll do what I can.”
Jen was surprised by the sudden tenderness in the new handler’s voice. It reminded her of something from a dream. She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“What?” Hip asked, his face close.
She took a step back. “I need to get back to work.”
As she brushed Satellite, Jen stole glances at Hip. He’d taken her out to a movie over a year ago when his brother had introduced them, but then he’d never called her again after that. He’d said he’d never been to this part of the world, as though he were from another country. But he was from Texas. He spoke as if Texas were in a different part of the world.
Well, maybe all Texans thought that way.
Now he had the gall to show his face and ask for a job. He could have called her just to say, “Hey.”
She glanced at him once more, and this time she noticed a look of worry come over his face, even horror.
“You alright?” she asked. He was freaking her out.
He turned to Jen’s mother and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Holt, but I have to go.”
“What is it?” Jen’s mom asked, also noticing the obvious look of horror on their new handler’s face.
“I can’t explain,” he said. “Something’s not right. I need to go immediately. My apologies.”
“Do you need a ride anywhere?” Pete asked, having just walked in from the pen and having overheard the last bit of their conversation.
“Um, no thanks,” Hip said. “Thanks anyway, man.”
Jen’s mouth dropped open. This made absolutely no sense. She followed Hip from the barn and stood at the gate, where he let himself out of the pen.
“Are you coming back tomorrow?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I hope so.” He didn’t even look at Jen, which hurt after the tenderness between them moments ago. She’d begun to forgive him. And now he was leaving?
“Will I ever see you again?” she cried out as he jogged down the gravel drive from her house to the road.
“I hope so,” he repeated, but again without turning and meeting her eyes.
Overcome with a sudden feeling of dread, Jen opened the gate and followed him down the path. She watched him turn past a line of oak trees. When she rounded the corner, her throat pinched closed by the shock. He had disappeared.
She looked all around the one-mile stretch of road from her house to the Melner Cabin, where he was staying. Panting for breath and trembling, she knocked on the door of the cabin and got no answer.
“Hip? Are you there?” she called again and again, but the boy had vanished.
I write fiction for teens and adults and teach writing and literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I live with my husband, three kids, two dogs, and two rats (Katniss and Prim, of course). I’m also an avid reader and book reviewer. I’ve always said I never want to give up reading for writing or vice versa. I want to do both. My favorite authors are Tracy Chevalier, Ann Patchett, Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, Rick Riordan, and Stephanie Meyer. I have too many to name, but those are a handful of them. When I’m not spending time with the family, working, reading, or writing, I can be found watching The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Middle, and NCIS.
I love to interact with readers and have recently added features to my website at http://www.evapohler.com with this in mind. If you email me your art and/or stories based on The Gatekeeper’s Trilogy, or on Greek mythology in general, I will post them on my website for others to enjoy. I have also added a short video on the Olympians and a fun Jeopardy Game to test your knowledge. Please visit my website for more details.
Thanks for taking the time to read about me and my writing!